Content on the web doesn’t pay, and giving up on comments will make everything worse

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

It’s a failure of leadership when a content play can not figure out how to make money off of comments.

All the money goes to the systems that collect the comments (Twitter, Facebook).

NPR is making an announcement today that is sure to upset a loyal core of its audience, those who comment online at NPR.org (including those who comment on this blog). As of Aug. 23, online comments, a feature of the site since 2008, will be disabled.

With the change, NPR joins a long list of other news organizations choosing to move conversations about its journalism off its own site and instead rely on social media to pick up the slack. But NPR stands for National Public Radio, so a decision to limit “public” input at NPR.org seems especially jarring.

The decision should not be taken to mean that NPR does not value audience engagement, said Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news. “We’ve been working on audience engagement, user connections, in a variety of ways, for many, many years, certainly going back to even before the internet. It is a part of public media. It’s important to us,” he told me.

But at this point, he argued, the audience itself has decided for NPR, choosing to engage much more via social media, primarily on Twitter and Facebook, rather than in the NPR.org comments section.

“We’ve reached the point where we’ve realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism,” he said, with money, and spending it efficiently, part of the issue. More than 5 million people each month engage with NPR on Twitter, compared to just a fraction of that number in the NPR.org comments. “In relative terms, as we set priorities, it becomes increasingly clear that the market has spoken. This is where people want to engage with us. So that’s what we’re going to emphasize,” he said.

I did find the numbers quite startling. In July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users, and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, Montgomery said. That’s 0.06 percent of users who are commenting, a number that has stayed steady through 2016.

When NPR analyzed the number of people who left at least one comment in both June and July, the numbers showed an even more interesting pattern: Just 4,300 users posted about 145 comments apiece, or 67 percent of all NPR.org comments for the two months. More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users. The conclusion: NPR’s commenting system — which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted — is serving a very, very small slice of its overall audience.

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